The Government has confirmed that it has sought accreditation for some of its Beijing-based diplomats to go to the Winter Olympics, which open in the city on February 4.
This is despite its Trade Minister yesterday telling a Select Committee he supported a boycott such as that currently being called for by the United States.
At the same time, the Prime Minister has finally confirmed that she will make a presentation to the controversial “Summit for Democracy” being promoted by the US.
Earlier in the week, her office was uncertain whether she would attend.
To add to a day of diplomatic confusion, National’s Associate Foreign Affairs spokesperson was supporting a call for a boycott of the Olympics while its Trade spokesperson was criticising the Trade Minister for saying the same thing.
China has strongly criticised the summit and its Charge d’Affaires Wellington, Wang Genhua, earlier this week told POLITIK the summit was trying to divide the world into democratic and non-democratic systems.
But the invitations have been eclectic, with Singapore being barred while the Philippines, Iraq and Pakistan have been invited.
What may have been one factor in New Zealand’s hesitancy about becoming involved is hinted at in a report in The Wall Street Journal last week that the Biden administration is preparing to unleash a flurry of new sanctions against “foreign-government officials and people it accuses of corruption and human rights abuse,” while urging other nations at the summit to “join its pressure campaign.”
In a statement yesterday, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “New Zealand supports the Summit for Democracy and will have a presence throughout. The Prime Minister will participate via two pre-recorded statements, and the New Zealand Ambassador to the United States will attend.”
The low key nature of that statement underlines New Zealand’s apparent reluctance to get involved in what could easily turn into a US-led gang up on China.
That is what appears to be happening with the US call for a “diplomatic” boycott of the Winter Games.
New Zealand appears to be on its own among Five Eyes members in not joining the boycott.
Canada has joined Australia, Britain and the United States in the diplomatic boycott.
China has said it would respond to the US diplomatic boycott with countermeasures.
“The US and Australia will pay a price for their erroneous actions. You may wait and see,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Wednesday.
New Zealand has unveiled a complex response which says a decision not to send a Minister was made back in October.
Given that, because of Covid, only the Trade and Foreign Ministers have travelled overseas in the past 21 months, that was not unexpected.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday said New Zealand shared concerns about the human rights situation and had been consistent in raising those issues with China.
“We often don’t attend Winter Games at ministerial level, and especially in light of the global COVID situation, there are no plans to do so on this occasion,” the statement said.
“ A small New Zealand team of athletes and an accompanying support team will attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.
“Matters relating to attendance by athletes are for the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
“The New Zealand Olympic Committee has sought accreditation for a small number of Embassy staff, including the Ambassador, to provide consular support to the team, should it be needed, as is standard practice for this kind of event.
“No decisions have been taken on attendance beyond this.”
But New Zealand’s position was complicated yesterday by its Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor, saying he supported a diplomatic boycott.
It is not the first time he has embarrassed the Government with comments about China.
In January, he caused trans-Tasman tensions by saying Australia “should follow us and show respect” to China in an interview with an Asian broadcaster.
“We have a trade relationship with China that is very, very strong,” he told the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee yesterday.
“There are other issues that we raise at a diplomatic level, and we will do continue to do so.
“We’ll make judgments on those things as they as they come along.”
O’Connor said New Zealand had kept trade relationships separate from other issues like human rights issues.
But asked by National MP Todd McClay whether he supported a diplomatic boycott, O’Connor said: “It’s something that we need to do as a nation. We need to stand up and make points.
“We are strong; we’re independent,” he said.
“And as I say, we’ve been very strong on those issues around human rights and unnecessary discrimination.
“We should continue with it.”
McClay later said he agreed with O’Connor that New Zealand was an export nation and trade was extremely important to our economy.
“We are waiting on China to ratify the Fair Trade Agreement upgrade,” he said.
“Damien O’Connor needs to clarify the Government’s position and talk directly to his counterpart in China to avoid confusion and delays to the upgrade.
“This is an extremely important relationship for New Zealand.
“Any uncertainty over the Government’s position risks harming this relationship and therefore our exporters.”
But National was not without its own problems.
Its Associate Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Simon O’Connor, is a co-Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a predominantly European organisation that takes a hawkish view of the Chinese Communist Party.
The University of Canterbury Sinologist Anne-Marie Brady is one of its advisors.
Along with the other New Zealand co-Chair, Labour backbencher, Lousia Wall, O’Connor has joined the IPAC call on political leaders and national representatives to decline invitations to attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
“National representatives” would include diplomats.
Simon O’Connor has taken a strong line on China in the past (he is also a strong backer of Israel),
He was appointed Associate Foreign Affairs spokesperson by then-leader, Judith Collins, last year.
She shared many of his hardline views.
His status in the Caucus gives his views a level of credibility, but obviously, they conflict with the party’s Trade spokesperson.
National was not making any effort to resolve this contradiction last night. Instead, its Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Gerry Brownlee, was drawing attention to the Government and what he called its confusion and contradictory statements.
O’Connor’s statement did, however, undermine a message sent last night from the party’s new leader, Christopher Luxon, to party members.
“It’s been a busy week in Parliament. National is back, we are united, and we are focused on the issues that matter to Kiwis,” he said.
The reality is both the Government and National are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to preserve the relationship with China, while on the other, they have the country’s traditional allies, the US, Britain and Australia wanting to confront China.